The Two Sides of Servant Leadership
Finding a healthy and biblical balance
Jesus was the greatest servant leader our world has ever known. Mark 10:45 says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus’ selfless service to others, combined with His unflinching devotion to His purpose, set Him apart.
But Jesus not only modeled servant leadership, He also mandated it for His disciples. Unfortunately, Jesus’ disciples weren’t so quick to follow His example.
On one occasion, James and John were jockeying for position, seeking to sit at Jesus’ right and left in heaven. “Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them’” (Mark 10:42).
Jesus pointed to the religious leaders of the day as models not to follow. Their leadership may have been the standard at the time, but Jesus was about to raise the bar. Jesus continued: “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44).
Rather than leading from a power base of title or position, Jesus called His disciples to lead by serving and serve by leading.
Both of these dimensions of servant leadership are essential today. What’s the difference? When you lead by serving, servanthood becomes your natural leadership posture. It’s the lens through which you view leadership.
You care about the needs of your team, find meaningful ways to serve others, and remain willing to set aside your own preferences and perks for the good of the organization. In other words, you don’t just occasionally “do” servant acts; you are a servant at your very core.
The other dimension of servant leadership — serving by leading — is also important. When you serve by leading, you realize the best way you can serve the organization is through your leadership gift. You choose to steward your leadership responsibilities wisely, and you commit to grow your leadership gifting to its full capacity.
Jesus’ selfless service to others, combined with His unflinching devotion to His purpose, set Him apart.
Unfortunately, leaders too often swing to one extreme. For example, leaders who only lead by serving will quickly slip into doing mode, while losing sight of the responsibility to lead others toward the vision with which God has entrusted them.
Yes, such leaders will listen, offer support and drop everything to serve. But people often take advantage of them. Without proper boundaries, these leaders become doormats others will walk on.
On the other hand, leaders who only serve by leading will quickly grow leadership skills, but they won’t be willing to do anything they consider beneath them. Such leaders seek to lead without serving. They won’t stoop down to help others step up. They may have a head for leadership, but no leadership heart — leadership competency without leadership compassion.
This all boils down to two words: “priorities” and “pride.” When you only lead by serving, your priorities get sidelined. You find yourself working on everybody else’s to-do list while ignoring priorities, the places where you can add the greatest value.
Yes, you should serve others. Yes, you should offer to help. But your job is not to do somebody else’s job for them. You have to serve people without sacrificing your priorities.
When you only serve by leading, your pride poisons the heart of leadership and sidelines your effectiveness with people. People will begin to resent you as your ivory tower mentality keeps you isolated from the very people who are making your vision a reality. You’ll get so focused on leading the mission of the organization that you forget to serve the people in the organization.
Effective servant leaders guard against these extremes. They maintain their priorities and minimize their pride. They strike a balance in leading by serving and serving by leading. Both are essential for effective leadership, but the extremes can quickly propel you into an unhealthy life or unhealthy leadership.
Follow Jesus’ example of servant leadership. Be compassionate, caring and focused on helping others. At the same time, know when to pull away from the crowds to spend time with your Heavenly Father. Know when to focus on the organization and not just work in the organization.
A healthy balance will produce a healthy team and a thriving organization.